Diotima of Mantinea

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Diotima of Mantinea
Διοτίμα Μαντινίκη
Jadwiga Łuszczewska, who used the pen name Diotima, posing as the ancient seer in a painting by Józef Simmler, 1855
EraAncient philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolClassical Greek
Notable ideas
Platonic love

Diotima of Mantinea (/ˌdəˈtmə/; Greek: Διοτίμα; Latin: Diotīma) is the name or pseudonym of an ancient Greek character in Plato's dialogue Symposium, possibly an actual historical figure, indicated as having lived circa 440 B.C. Her ideas and doctrine of Eros as reported by the character of Socrates in the dialogue are the origin of the concept today known as Platonic love.


The name Diotima means one who honors or is honored by Zeus, and her descriptor as "Mantinikê" (Mantinean) seems designed to draw attention to the word "mantis", which suggests an association with prophecy. However, she is not described or depicted as a priestess or prophetess, but simply as a 'clever woman' and a 'non-Athenian'(xenê). Since the adjective includes the word nikê, "Diotima Mantinikê" has been heard as a pun in Greek indicating "Diotima prophet of victory".[1] (If Plato intended this as a clue to her true identity, the name may disguise a person who was a supporter of Athens' successful military ventures in the age of Pericles: so a "prophet of victory"). The adjective "Mantinikê" would make her come from the Peloponnesian city of Mantinea, which was allied against Athens at the time of the dialogue. In one manuscript her description was mistranscribed mantikê ('mantic woman' or seeress) rather than Mantinikê, which may be at the root of her persistent misrepresentation as a "priestess".[2][3]

Since there is no evidence for 'Diotima' outside Plato's Symposium, it has been doubted whether she was a real historical personage rather than a fictional creation. However, many of (though not all, see below regarding 'Callicles') the characters named in Plato's dialogues correspond to real people living in ancient Athens.[4] Plato was thought by some 19th and early 20th century scholars to have based Diotima on Aspasia, the companion of Pericles who famously impressed him by her intelligence and eloquence, but they offered no evidence other than a general resemblance. Aspasia herself is a character in Plato's dialogue Menexenus, and it has been argued that Diotima could be an independent historical woman known for her intellectual accomplishments, though she is otherwise unattested.[5]

In the Symposium, Diotima expounds ideas that are different from both Socrates's and Plato's, though with clear connections to both. Socrates also claims to have learned from her on more than one occasion. These indications have been used to argue for Diotima's independent existence;[6] but more plausibly they may account for why Plato does not directly attribute "Diotima's doctrine of Love" either to Aspasia or to Socrates (her doctrine ends up as being evidently Platonic in relation to its introduction of Forms). In 2019 Armand D'Angour extracted new evidence from the text of Symposium to suggest that at least the main model for Diotima was Aspasia (even though the doctrines she expounds are more Plato's rather than Aspasia's): the connection of the name 'Diotima' (honored by Zeus) to Pericles (regularly called 'Zeus' in comedy, and famously said to have honored his consort Aspasia); and the relationship of the action of "postponing the Plague by 10 years" to the notorious misconduct by Pericles at the siege of Samos in 440-439, which will have caused concerns about divine retribution falling on Athens that in the event did not appear to come to fruition until the Plague of 430-429.

A first century bronze relief found in Pompeii depicts Socrates and an unnamed female figure, along with a winged Eros; although some have supposed the seated woman in the image to be Diotima, others have argued her appearance (notably a necklace) would suggest she is in fact more likely to be Aphrodite or Aspasia. Writings from the second through the fifth centuries A.D. refer to Diotima as a real person, although Plato is probably their only basis for this. A second century AD reference to Diotima can be found in the works of Lucian.[7] The suggestion that she was a fictional creation was not introduced until the 15th century by Marsilio Ficino.[8] This hypothesis recalls the practise of using fictional characters in other Platonic dialogues (for instance Callicles in the Gorgias), and draws on the fact that Diotima is not mentioned by any contemporary sources and because her name and origin could be understood as symbolic (see above).

Role in Symposium[edit]

In Plato's Symposium the members of a party discuss the meaning of love. Socrates says that in his youth he was taught "the philosophy of love" by Diotima, who was a seer or priestess. Socrates also claims that Diotima successfully postponed the Plague of Athens. In a dialogue that Socrates recounts at the symposium, Diotima says that Socrates has confused the idea of love with the idea of the beloved. Love, she says, is neither fully beautiful nor good, as the earlier speakers in the dialogue had argued. Diotima gives Socrates a genealogy of Love (Eros), stating that he is the son of "resource (poros) and poverty (penia)". In her view, love drives the individual to seek beauty, first earthly beauty, or beautiful bodies. Then as a lover grows in wisdom, the beauty that is sought is spiritual, or beautiful souls. For Diotima, the most correct use of love of other human beings is to direct one's mind to love of wisdom, or philosophy.[9] The beautiful beloved inspires the mind and the soul and directs one's attention to spiritual things. One proceeds from recognition of another's beauty, to appreciation of Beauty apart from any individual, to consideration of Divinity, the source of Beauty, to love of Divinity.

. . . and directing his gaze from now, on towards beauty as a whole, he should turn to the great ocean of beauty, and in contemplation of it give birth to many beautiful and magnificent speeches and thoughts in the abundance of philosophy. (Diotima to Socrates in Plato's Symposium.)

Relief of a woman holding a liver for hepatoscopy, possibly a depiction of Diotima of Mantineia.

Recent interpretations[edit]

Beginning in the 20th century, the dehistoricization of Diotima became a subject of interest for several scholars, including Mary Ellen Waithe.[8] In 2005, Margaret Urban Walker summarized Waithe's research, stating that "the evidence for Diotima's reality is substantial, even if not conclusive, and that her imaginary status appears to be a fifteenth-century fiction that stuck."[10]

In 2010, Australian novelist Gary Corby published The Pericles Commission, the first in a series of mystery novels taking place in ancient Athens. Diotima is a major recurring character, the love interest, assistant sleuth, and eventually wife of Corby's protagonist, Nicolaos. Corby's Diotima is a priestess of Artemis who was born the illegitimate daughter of a hetaira and an Athenian oligarch whose murder is Nicolaos's first commissioned investigation from Pericles.

In 2019 Oxford professor Armand D'Angour published Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher, presenting for the first time a wholly new case for identifying Diotima with Aspasia. His historical arguments are based on 1) the likelihood of Aspasia's involvement in the warding off of plague that Athenians will have expected to be brought on by Pericles' irreligious actions (e.g. failure to bury the dead) after his campaign against Samos in 440-39 2) the fact that 'Diotima' means 'honored by/honoring Zeus'; Pericles was called 'Zeus' in comedy and popular parlance, and he was notorious for the unusual honor that he bestowed on Aspasia.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Evans, Nancy. "Diotima and Demeter as Mystagogues in Plato's Symposium." Hypatia, vol. 21, no. 2, 2006, pp. 1–27. JSTOR 3810989.
  2. ^ Riegel, Nicholas (2016). Cosmópolis: mobilidades culturais às origens do pensamento antigo. Eryximachus and Diotima in Plato’s Symposium: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra. ISBN 978-989-26-1287-4.
  3. ^ Grote, George (1888). Plato and the Other Companions of Sokrates. Chapter XXVI.
  4. ^ Ruby Blondell The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p.31
  5. ^ Wider, Kathleen. "Women philosophers in the Ancient Greek World: Donning the Mantle". Hypatia vol 1 no 1 Spring 1986. Part of her argument focuses on the polemical point that all scholars who argued "for" a fictitious Diotima were male, and most used as a starting point Smith's uncertainty of her historical existence (Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, 1870).
  6. ^ Salisbury, Joyce (2001). Encyclopedia of women in the ancient world. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1576070925. OCLC 758191338.
  7. ^ Lucian. Imagines. In Lucian, Vol. 4. Translated by A. M. Harmon. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Publ., 1925, 289.
  8. ^ a b Waithe, Mary Ellen (1987). "Diotima of Mantinea". In Waithe, Mary Ellen (ed.). A History of Women Philosophers: Volume I: Ancient Women Philosophers, 600 BC–500 AD. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff. pp. 83–116. ISBN 9789024733484. Retrieved October 10, 2018.
  9. ^ Plato, Symposium, 210a–212b
  10. ^ Urban Walker, Margaret (Summer 2005). "Diotima's Ghost: The Uncertain Place of Feminist Philosophy in Professional Philosophy". Hypatia. 20 (3): 153–164. doi:10.2979/hyp.2005.20.3.153. JSTOR 3811120.


  • Navia, Luis E., Socrates, the man and his philosophy, pp. 30, 171. University Press of America ISBN 0-8191-4854-7.
  • Evans, Nancy. “Diotima and Demeter as Mystagogues in Plato's Symposium.” Hypatia, vol. 21, no. 2, 2006, pp. 1–27. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3810989.
  • D'Angour, Armand. Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher (Bloomsbury, 2019).